Wakatakeya Brewery: Sake Storehouse Opening at Chikugo, Fukuoka’s Oldest Brewery
Japanese sake is now increasingly popular among young and old, men and women and people of all nationalities alike. Early in this November, a sake storehouse opening (kurabiraki) event was held in Tanushimaru in the Chikugo Area of Fukuoka and attracted many sake fans.
In a kurabiraki event, the year’s first opening of a sake storehouse is celebrated on the lucky day (kichijitsu) during New Year’s holidays. People have traditionally held this event on the 11th of January and enjoyed “zoni” soup, which contains rice cake taken from kagamimochi rice cake, the traditional New Year’s ornament. The origin of kurabiraki event dates back to the Edo Period (17th – 19th century) when feudal lords held rituals to celebrate the opening of the rice storehouse.
While sake storehouse opening (kurabiraki) event was held for such celebratory purposes as mentioned above, nowadays it is held more simply as a festive event to enjoy sake. Anyone can casually visit a kurabiraki event and enjoy not only touring inside the brewery and tasting sake produced there but also live music performance and other fun events as well as the sales of the local specialty items. Most breweries host the event sometime between February and April but some host it more regularly throughout the year.
Now let me take this opportunity to share with you my experience of visiting the kurabiraki event held at Wakatakeya Brewery, the oldest brewery in the Chikugo Area of Fukuoka Prefecture, and the history of the brewery.
Brewery Built 300 Years Ago and its History
Built about 300 years ago in 1699, the historic building housing Wakatakeya brewery still retains the original appearance from the time. Among many sake breweries in the Chikugo Area of Fukuoka, Wakatakeya is the oldest one. But Denbei Wakatakeya, the founder of the brewery, was not a rich land owner like most owners of other breweries.
The reason of his success as a brewer can be attributed to his love and devotion for sake making and refusal to compromise the quality of his products. While it is common today to use rice called “sakamai,” which is grown solely to be used for the ingredient of sake, in the past sake was made from residual rice. But Denbei, instead of using the residual rice, selected rice suitable for sake making and invested what humble amount of money and resource he had into sake brewery business.
Perhaps due to such passion of the founder, Wakatakeya Brewery is still in business and supported by and keeps attracting many sake lovers while many other old breweries have been forced out of business.
Enjoying Sake Tasting at the Kurabiraki Event
At the entrance of the kurabiraki event site, you will be greeted by a barrel of sake. Barrel of sake is commonly used in celebratory events and the ritualistic act of breaking the lid of a barrel is called “kagami biraki.” For many Japanese people, a barrel of sake is an important item to lift up a festive mood in everyone.
Let’s take a sip of sake now. The kurabiraki event of Wakatake Brewery charges no admission fee and you just have to pay 100 yen to buy a sake cup (ochoko) and enjoy drinking sake as much as you want. The event staff wearing dark blue happi coats keep refilling the cups for visitors who are already slightly drunken while enjoying chatting with them and share their knowledge about sake. Their great services and hospitality well explains why this event attracts a lot of customers every year.
On the back of the staff coats is written the words meaning “The business of Wakatakeya is not the heritage from our ancestors but what we promise our later generations.”
This is the guiding precept of Wakatakeya Brewery which expresses their commitment in continuing the business prosperity and handing it over to the future generations. Japanese society has a strong teaching about respecting ancestors and I have been influenced by such an idea myself but their business precept sounds brighter and more positive compared to such common teachings in Japan.
Great Variety of Sake and Other Items
Once you have tried all the sake available for tasting, you would want to consider buying a bottle of sake or two to enjoy it back at home. At the event site, some of those rare sake products such as “Toji No Kakushizake” and “Gentei No Nama Amazake” that are never available at regular sake stores were naturally attracting many people.
*Toji: the chief sake brewer
Other than sake, canvas cloth aprons and bags are also very interesting to check out. Canvas cloth aprons are traditionally worn by the clerks of sake stores and many breweries including Wakatakeya are selling them. Collecting aprons from each brewery would be interesting to try. Information: Map
Sake was not such a popular choice of drink and had much less number of fans compared to shochu and beer. But its popularity has risen greatly and become a boom recently, which was well showcased by the presence of many young visitors and female visitors at the event site. Also, ever since the registration of Japanese cuisine as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, Japanese sake has received renewed attention worldwide as a choice of drink to go with Japanese cuisines. Even at the event site, I was pleased as a sake lover to see many visitors from outside Japan enjoying sake.
There are also numerous other breweries around Japan hosting kurabiraki events like the one I visited at Wakatakeya Brewery. Please visit many breweries yourself and become a bigger fan of sake!